The Grand Canyon gets all the attention from visitors to Arizona, but once you’re in the area, like I was with my family on our recent spring break travels, it’s worth heading east a bit farther to explore Canyon de Chelly.
Pronounced “d’ shay”, Canyon de Chelly is based on the Navajo word tseyi meaning “place within the rock.” It holds the unique honor of being the only national monument within the Navajo Nation. Also, it’s gorgeous.
Where to stay
Despite the beauty of the area, there is also a fair amount of poverty, similar to the kind you might find in parts of Mexico. Driving through the town of Chinle may have you a bit concerned, but once you make it over a few hills you’ll arrive at the lovely Sacred Canyon Lodge, formally the Thunderbird Lodge. This is an ideal place to stay with kids to explore the area.
The single-story hotel has 70 lodge-style rooms that come with either two queen or two double beds, a bathroom and a sitting area. The rooms feature Navajo-inspired decor, as well as some modern amenities like flat screen TVs, cable and WiFi (sporadic WiFi, I should note). The rooms are on the smaller side, but there is a large grassy area for games of Frisbee or midday picnics, as well as a collection of tables. You can also check out other amenities, like hair dryers and mini fridges, from the front desk.
There is a fun gift shop on the premises with arrowheads, rocks and toys for the kids, as well as beautiful jewelry, weavings and artwork for the adults. There’s also a cafeteria-style dining room that serves breakfast, lunch and dinner. At least once during your stay, you must try a Navajo taco — a kind of marriage between an open-face taco and a bowl of chili on a piece of fry bread. It’s delicious and filling and definitely big enough to share!
The staff is friendly and helpful, but it is important to note that they are limited in their ability to recommend specific excursions, tour guides or activities over others — I’m not sure if it is an actual law or just a code of ethics, but they couldn’t (and adamantly wouldn’t) recommend one tour provider over another. So, if you like to make decisions on the recommendations of others, it’s worth visiting Yelp, TripAdvisor and the like to find out some fan favorites.
The only way to explore the canyon is via a guided tour, which are offered via Jeeps (2-3 people, some take 4), Suburbans (3+ people), horseback or hiking. Yes, it’s a little strange driving right through the river of this sacred canyon in a 4-wheel drive Suburban! There are a handful of approved tour guide companies (we used AZ Canyon Jeep Tours) and you can find customer feedback if you look on travel sites like TripAdvisor.com.
The canyon offers a wealth of history of the Anasazi, Hopi and Navajo people dating back to roughly 700 A.D. In addition to the history and legends a good guide will talk about during the tour, you’ll also get to see the ruins (many still intact) of ancient cliff dwellings and an amazing collection of pictographs and petroglyphs.
Check these out….
It’s one thing to read about the history of a people. It’s another thing to see a picture, a hand print that a person left on a wall almost 2,000 years ago!
And then there are the cliff dwellings…
Built directly in the sandstone cliff, these dwellings provided rooms for shelter, storage and ceremonies for the Anasazi.
A standard guide takes about three-hours, is filled with lots of history and stories, has a handful of get-out-and-walk-around stops, and is a pretty good length for families. If you have older children, you can sign up for longer half- or full-day tours. We took the first tour of the day (usually around 10 a.m.) and our guide mentioned that this is an ideal time of day to see many of the pictographs and cave dwellings.
Be sure to note: We read online and talked to other hotel guest who had experience with tour guide no-shows in this area, so be sure to call and confirm your pick-up time and location.
Other kid-friendly activities
Before or after your canyon tour, you’ll want to leave time to check out the Canyon de Chelly Visitor Center, which is just a short drive from the Sacred Canyon Lodge, as well as time to explore the canyon from above with the North and South Rim self-guided tours. There are a number of lookouts and vistas and some also have hiking trails. And, if you’re lucky, you can even grab a gorgeous DIY sunset dinner with canyon views!
For more information on the area visit National Park Service website and the Navajo Nation Parks and Recreation website.
We were not paid for this post. We did received a complimentary stay at the Sacred Canyon Lodge to help facilitate this post. All opinions expressed are my own.
The cliff dwellings are amazing! What a great trip – and great photos!